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World War I Belongs to Literature Now

Reading last week about the death of Florence Green, Women’s Royal Air Force member and last surviving veteran of the First World War, I thought of a sonorous passage by Borges:

In a stable lying almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and a gray beard, stretched on the ground amidst the animal odors, meekly seeks death like someone seeking sleep….In the kingdoms of England, the sound of the bells is already one of the customs of the afternoon, but the man, while still a boy, had seen the face of Woden, had seen holy dread and exultation, had seen the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, seen the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he would be dead and with him would die, never to return, the last firsthand images of the pagan rites. The world would be poorer when this Saxon was no more.

We may well be astonished by space-filling acts which come to an end when someone dies, and yet something, or an infinite number of things, die in each death—unless there is a universal memory, as the theosophists have conjectured. There was a day in time when the last eyes to see Christ were closed forever. The battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose? Perhaps the voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a horse in the vacant space at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk? (“The Witness,” Anthony Kerrigan trans.)

The Great War now officially belongs to history, but it may be more accurate to say that it belongs to literature. Borges in “The Witness” is talking obliquely about the preservative power of writing: by naming that single horse he is hoping to save it from oblivion just as Helen—if she existed—was saved. And arguably no event in modern history has been more vividly recorded in literary memory than World War I; through the books that bear witness to it, it’s been seared into the cultural fossil record like the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.

Everyone who has contemplated the war, during and after, has testified to the watershed it represented. Virginia Woolf suggested that “human character” itself changed in the turbulent years preceding it; Philip Larkin wrote famously that it snuffed the “innocence” of the Edwardian era “without a word”; Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, argued that it birthed a kind of irony that has become inseparable from our perspective on all of history. Such irony is closely linked to trauma, to the way the inconceivable happens in casual proximity with the ordinary.

Due to the unprecedented scale, efficiency, and pointlessness of its slaughter, World War I has gained a reputation as the great anti-romantic war. (This in itself, if a writer’s not careful, can invest the subject with a kind of romance.) Fussell notes that the horror of the trenches purged war literature of a whole Arthurian vocabulary of combat: “steed,” “foe,” “vanquish,” “perish.” Hemingway’s battle-scarred Frederic Henry makes a similar point in A Farewell to Arms:

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity….Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

And so while the war generated its share of sentimental classics (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow…”), these now look to us like stale bits in the teeth of a thoroughly modern beast. The World War I of the imagination resides in the novels of Hemingway, Woolf, Ford, Hašek, and Remarque; in the memoir-novels of Robert Graves and E. E. Cummings; in the poetry of Thomas Hardy (“Channel Firing”), T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land,” “The Hollow Men,” both portraits of cultural shell shock), and Wilfred Owen, who was gunned down on the Fonsomme Line a week before the armistice. Owen in particular has become the symbolic casualty of the war; his cruelly silenced voice ranged from the journalistic to the prophetic:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind. [“Dulce et Decorum Est“]

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,

That they should be as stones.

Wretched are they, and mean

With paucity that never was simplicity.

By choice they made themselves immune

To pity and whatever mourns in man

Before the last sea and the hapless stars;

Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;

Whatever shares

The eternal reciprocity of tears. [“Insensibility“]

Because World War I was one of the single stupidest actions ever perpetrated by human beings, its disappearance from living memory unnerves me a little—as if the loss of that tangible link might condemn us to repeat it. (Again.) At the same time, the literature it generated remains a powerful call to nonviolence for those willing to seek out the lesson. Owen and company lie in wait to stun us like the live ordnance still being recovered near Verdun.

Complementing the literary war are thousands of other historical records—letters, contemporary news articles, and the like; there must also be a handful of surviving centenarians who were too young to fight, but who can dimly remember soldiers on parade or battles fought on the edge of town. Otherwise, the war is dead. Green took it with her. As a connoisseur of ironies, Fussell might be pleased to learn that her departing memory was all innocence: “I met dozens of pilots and would go on dates,” she recalled in 2008. “In many ways, I had the time of my life.”

Postscript: I can’t resist a personal footnote, which is really a footnote to a footnote. While working as an editor for Big Think in 2009, I came across the story of Corporal Frank Buckles, the last American survivor of World War I. At the time Buckles was still alive and residing in West Virginia, so along with my fellow staff I tried to arrange an interview with him. As a kid I’d been enthralled (and terrified) by All Quiet on the Western Front; it amazed me that someone who had witnessed that front could have lived to see Google and predator drones. I would gladly have trekked to West Virginia to talk with him for a few minutes—not in order to ask any particular question, but just to make that seemingly impossible connection. Sadly, I had no luck. He was very old and, understandably, done talking. He died in 2011, followed shortly by former Royal Navy officer Claude Choules and, finally, Green. So much for my career as World War I correspondent; my sources now will always have to be books.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]


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